The political shaping of the sustainability transformation: participatory and ecological?

In this article in, the academic online magazine of the NRW School of Governance, Tobias Escher explores the question of whether the participation formats required for a participatory development of the transformation to a more sustainable society can also be implemented in an ecologically sustainable manner. In other words, the question is how the principle of (ecologically) sustainable governance can be upheld in the democratically important area of political participation.


The transformation to a sustainable society can only succeed through the involvement of all stakeholders. At the same time, sustainable governance requires that these participation processes also fulfil the requirements of sustainability. Based on a systematic discussion of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by various political participation formats, this article argues that in view of the functional and normative significance of political participation, its environmental footprint does usually not contradict the demand for sustainable governance.

Key findings

  • The implementation of participation formats generates greenhouse gas emissions due to the energy required, the mobility of the participants and, where applicable, catering and accommodation. Crucially, the level of emissions depends on whether the formats are held in person or digitally (see table below).
  • For local face-to-face formats, the emissions from the event venue and mobility of participants are comparatively low and only amount to around 2kg of CO2-equivalents per person in the scenario analysed. The emissions increase considerably as soon as participants have to travel further (using fossil-fuelled transport) – in the underlying scenario by a factor of twelve to 24kg. This is roughly equivalent to the average emissions from a 100km car journey.
  • In contrast, online participation formats only generate very low emissions (around 0.3kg per person in the scenario). Nevertheless, the choice of participation formats cannot be based solely on their short-term ecological costs, but must also take into account normative requirements for inclusion and popular control. Digital participation formats in particular represent significant barriers to participation for already disadvantaged population groups (see also our DigiBeSt-report).
  • Overall, participation has an ecological footprint, but this is generally justified by functional and normative considerations because after all, governance should not only be sustainable, but above all democratic!
face-to-face participationdigital participation
energyheating & climatisation of event venueoperation of end user devices & data centresmore data intensive communication
mobilitytraveltravelnot applicable
catering & accommodationcateringaccommodationnot applicable
Direct environmental impact of different participation formats. The darker the colour, the greater the respective emissions from this source. The emissions generally increase with the number of participants and the duration of the participation format.


Escher, Tobias (2024): Die politische Gestaltung der Nachhaltigkeitstransformation: partizipativ und ökologisch? Essay. In: (15. Jahrgang).

Pushback for the municipal mobility transition? Joint closing event of SÖF Junior Research Groups CIMT and MoveMe

The two junior research groups in Social-Ecological Research CIMT and MoveMe are holding a joint final event showcasing some results of their research into the transition to sustainable mobility. The event is scheduled to take place online on 26. April 2024. More information is available in German.

Effects of online citizen participation on legitimacy beliefs

In this article in the journal Policy & Internet, Tobias Escher and Bastian Rottinghaus explore the question of how participation in local consultation processes (on planning of cycling infrastructure) affects attitudes towards local politics. To this end, in 2018 they examined a total of three participation procedures in which the cities of Bonn, Cologne (district Ehrenfeld) and Moers consulted their citizens on local cycling infrastructure. In each case, for five weeks citizens were able to submit, comment on and evaluate proposals through an online platform. In total, more than 3,000 proposals were collected which were to be incorporated into the subsequent cycling planning (see further information on the Cycling Dialogues project).


In order to generate legitimacy for policies and political institutions, governments regularly involve citizens in the decision-making process, increasingly so via the Internet. This research investigates if online participation does indeed impact positively on legitimacy beliefs of those citizens engaging with the process, and which particular aspects of the participation process, the individual participants and the local context contribute to these changes. Our surveys of participants in almost identical online consultations in three German municipalities show that the participation process and its expected results have a sizeable effect on satisfaction with local political authorities and local regime performance. While most participants report at least slightly more positive perceptions that are mainly output-oriented, for some engagement with the process leads not to more, but in fact to less legitimacy. We find this to be the case both for those participants who remain silent and for those who participate intensively. Our results also confirm the important role of existing individual resources and context-related attitudes such as trust in and satisfaction with local (not national) politics. Finally, our analysis shows that online participation is able to enable constructive discussion, deliver useful results and attract people who would not have participated offline to engage.

Key findings

  • The participation processes we studied and to which citizens were invited by their respective councils do indeed have an influence on the attitudes of those who participate in such consultations.
  • For many of the participants, the positive effect that was hoped for does indeed occur: they are more positive about the local institutions (mayor, administration) and local politics as a whole. The decisive factor for the assessment is whether one expects local politics to take the citizens’ proposals seriously and act upon them. In other words, the result of the process is more important for attitudes than the process itself.
  • It is noteworthy that this holds true also for those who have rather negative views of local politics to begin with. However, previous experience with local politics also plays a role: those who already have a higher level of satisfaction and trust in the municipality are becoming more positive by participation.
  • At the same time, participation can also lead to less satisfaction. We were able to show this, on the one hand, for those who were intensively involved in the participation process and made a lot of proposals. On average, this group was less satisfied in the end, probably because their expectations of the impact of their efforts were disappointed. Those who did not actively participate but only visited the online procedure without making suggestions themselves were also more dissatisfied. These people were apparently mainly concerned about the fact that the process took place exclusively online.
  • Overall, however, our results show that such online participation processes not only enable constructive participation, but that they also reach additional groups: Almost half of the respondents would not have participated if the process had only been conducted with on-site formats requiring physical presence.


Escher, Tobias; Rottinghaus, Bastian (2023): Effects of online citizen participation on legitimacy beliefs in local government. Evidence from a comparative study of online participation platforms in three German municipalities. In: Policy & Internet, Artikel poi3.371. DOI: 10.1002/poi3.371.

Mobility transition in practical terms: Perspectives of the SÖF junior research groups with a focus on mobility

On 25 & 26 October the three SÖF junior research groups with a focus on mobility met in Hannover to exchange insight from their current research, identify common themes and discuss possible future opportunities for collaboration.

There is more information available in German.

Meet-the-Team: Tobias

In the meet the team series, we introduce a member of the research group every week to give an impression beyond the scientific work. For this purpose, our student assistant Philippe Sander asked us a few questions.

Today in the interview: Tobias. As political sociologist his research focuses in particular on the role of citizen participation for legitimacy beliefs and how these are related to the substantial “quality” of citizens’ contributions to such participation processes. In addition, he is leading the research group. More infos on his research are available here.

picture: Tilman Schenk

What inspired you to pursue a career in your research field, and how did you get started in your field?

I think it has always been important to me how people can determine their fate and how to ensure that societies agree on how they want to live together. That is why early on in my studies I was interested in political participation and its role in political decision-making. At the beginning of my research, the main focus was on the influence of the Internet. Many questions were still open at that time. One of them was, for example, whether more people would participate through these digital possibilities, or whether online participation could achieve anything at all. Meanwhile, the new media are no longer new and I’m pursuing other questions beyond that, but I’ve remained true to the topic of participation.

Can you describe your current research project and what you hope to achieve with it? What do you personally find the most interesting about it?

In our current research project, the fundamental question is how local authorities can succeed in making the transition to sustainable mobility and adapting to climate change. After all, mobility is a major factor for emissions. From my point of view, the complex issue of climate change and what we can do about it is not a technical question, but rather a social one. To be precise: How do we manage to do these things – which we know we have to do – in such a way that they are ecologically, socially and economically sustainable and accepted by the population?

How do you go about your research? What methods, theories or frameworks do you use?

Well, I think what’s exciting is that our research group works together with Sociology, Urban Planning and Computer Science in a very interdisciplinary way, and each discipline has its own theories and methods. In the field of participation research, the fundamental question is what function the participation of citizens actually has beyond elections. Of course, participatory theories of democracy provide different answers to this question than liberal or even elitist understandings of democracy. Furthermore, we deal a lot with the question of who participates at all and why, or rather why not. In my research, we are mainly relying on the Civic Voluntarism Model. Otherwise, I am primarily interested in the extent to which participation leads to greater acceptance of decisions and also of those responsible for the decision. We talk about legitimacy and work a lot with Easton, Scharpf and Norris.

Methodologically, the project is also quite exciting, because we work both quantitatively and qualitatively and try to combine both. In my research, we mainly work quantitatively, with standardized surveys and corresponding quantitative analysis methods.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work and how do you overcome them?

That we always have to keep a balance between the actual research, the management of it and the rest of the self-management. In addition, a whole series of challenges arise when science and practice collide, for example in terms of time, because we are often dependent on the planning of the cities with which we work together. In the project itself, it’s extra special because we work with different disciplines. You have to find a common language there. That’s not always easy.

How do you stay on top of the latest trends and developments in your field?

For us as scientists this can be the direct exchange with colleagues, i.e. at conferences. Otherwise, I receive regular updates on the latest articles from journals that I read and that are relevant and pertinent to my topic. I consider this to be a very good way to gain insight into current topics, methods and debates that interest me.

How do you collaborate with other researchers or experts in your field to improve your projects?

I think it is important that we regularly gather feedback, such as at colloquia for dissertations or in workshops that we organize. In the process, we then also receive feedback from people outside our project. In addition, we have a scientific advisory board for our project that gives us valuable tips. In my opinion, it is primarily the constant exchange with others that is important. This can happen informally in the university environment, by meeting in the hallway and talking about some issues, or formally at conferences.

What impact do you hope your research will have on society or the field?

Personally, I consider climate change to be the greatest challenge facing humanity. From my perspective, it is less a technical problem and more a social problem that needs to be solved. We have, for the most part, the technology to do so, but fail to agree on the necessary measures, such as a speed limit. Ideally, our research will help identify a few aspects that are likely to help with this. But we may also find situations for which it turns out that citizen participation is not the right thing to do and other formats or means need to be explored. The big question is how to succeed in bringing about the transformation to more sustainability, and we are trying to provide a small piece of the puzzle.

Can you tell us about any interesting or meaningful experiences you had during your research?

What distinguishes us is our collaboration with practice. It is always exciting to step out of academic debates and be confronted with reality. This might also give new insights. As I said, it’s not always easy, but that’s what I really appreciate. Perhaps a bit more general, but what I also find an important experience: learning how nice it is when other people you accompanied at the beginning of their scientific career do a good job and that you perhaps had a certain part in helping them develop their potential.

What advice do you have for students and aspiring scientists just starting out in their careers?

The first question to ask yourself is: What interests me? The balance between openness and perseverance is important here. In other words, not blindly following trends and hastily dropping topics, but also not being resistant to advice and suggestions of others. The second is more of a formal thing. Academic research holds an incredible amount of possibilities. The upside is, you can always work, the downside is, you will always work: these thoughts and ideas regarding your research cannot be switched off. You have to be aware of that and decide for yourself if it fits with your personal plans in life.

Lastly, can you tell us a little about yourself outside of your work? What hobbies or interests do you pursue in your spare time, and how do they complement your research?

The topic of environmental protection is also one that accompanies me personally. To ask what we can do, and how we can perhaps also convince others to do a bit more than they are doing now. That‘s a nice connection between what is important to me personally and what I can do in my research. And that’s the way it should be. Apart from that, I have a family and can therefore rarely complain about boredom.

MA-thesis on participation of pupils during the Corona pandemic

In her thesis for the MA Social Sciences: Social Structures and Democratic Governance at Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, Maria Antonia Dausner has investigated the possibilities of pupil participation during the Covid-19-related school closures, focusing on an analysis of selected elementary schools in North Rhine-Westphalia.

More information is available in German.

Overview of Methods for Computational Text Analysis to Support the Evaluation of Contributions in Public Participation

In this publication in Digital Government: Research and Practice Julia Romberg and Tobias Escher offer a review of the computational techniques that have been used in order to support the evaluation of contributions in public participation processes. Based on a systematic literature review, they assess their performance and offer future research directions.


Public sector institutions that consult citizens to inform decision-making face the challenge of evaluating the contributions made by citizens. This evaluation has important democratic implications but at the same time, consumes substantial human resources. However, until now the use of artificial intelligence such as computer-supported text analysis has remained an under-studied solution to this problem. We identify three generic tasks in the evaluation process that could benefit from natural language processing (NLP). Based on a systematic literature search in two databases on computational linguistics and digital government, we provide a detailed review of existing methods and their performance. While some promising approaches exist, for instance to group data thematically and to detect arguments and opinions, we show that there remain important challenges before these could offer any reliable support in practice. These include the quality of results, the applicability to non-English language corpora and making algorithmic models available to practitioners through software. We discuss a number of avenues that future research should pursue that can ultimately lead to solutions for practice. The most promising of these bring in the expertise of human evaluators, for example through active learning approaches or interactive topic modelling.

Key findings

  • There are a number of tasks in the evaluation processes that could be supported through Natural Language Processing (NLP). Broadly speaking, these are i) detecting (near) duplicates, ii) grouping of contributions by topic and iii) analyzing the individual contributions in depth. Most of the literature in this review focused on the automated recognition and analysis of arguments, one particular aspect of the task of in-depth analysis of contribution.
  • We provide a comprehensive overview of the datasets used as well as the algorithms employed and aim to assess their performance. Generally, despite promising results so far the significant advances of NLP techniques in recent years have barely been exploited in this domain.
  • A particular gap is that few applications exist that would enable practitioners to easily apply NLP to their data and reap the benefits of these methods.
  • The manual labelling efforts required for training machine learning models risk any efficiency gains from automation.
  • We suggest a number of fruitful future research avenues, many of which draw upon the expertise of humans, for example through active learning or interactive topic modelling.


Romberg, Julia; Escher, Tobias (2023): Making Sense of Citizens’ Input through Artificial Intelligence. In: Digital Government: Research and Practice, Artikel 3603254. DOI: 10.1145/3603254.

Expert evidence: State of research on opportunities, challenges and limitations of digital participation

As set out in the German Site Selection Act (StandAG), the Federal Office for the Safety of Nuclear Waste Management (BASE) is charged with the comprehensive information and participation of the public in regards procedure for the search and selection of a repository site for the final disposal of high-level radioactive waste. In this context, in February 2022 BASE commissioned an expert report on the “Possibilities and limits of digital participation tools for public participation in the repository site selection procedure (DigiBeSt)” from the Düsseldorf Institute for Internet and Democracy (DIID) at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf in cooperation with the nexus Institute Berlin. For this purpose, lead by Tobias Escher a review of the state of research and current developments (work package 2) was prepared has been summarised in a detailed report (in German).

Selected findings from the report are:

  • Social inequalities in digital participation are mainly based on the second-level digital divide, i.e. differences in the media- and content-related skills required for independent and constructive use of the internet for political participation.
  • Knowledge about the effectiveness of activation factors is still often incomplete and anecdotal, making it difficult for initiators to estimate the costs and benefits of individual measures.
  • Personal invitations have been proven to be suitable for (target group-specific) mobilisation, but the established mass media also continue to play an important role.
  • Broad and inclusive participation requires a combination of different digital and analogue participation formats.
  • Participation formats at the national level face particular challenges due to the complexity of the issues at stake and the size of the target group. Therefore, these require the implementation of cascaded procedures (interlocking formats of participation at different political levels) as well as the creation of new institutions.


Lütters, Stefanie; Escher, Tobias; Soßdorf, Anna; Gerl, Katharina; Haas, Claudia; Bosch, Claudia (2024): Möglichkeiten und Grenzen digitaler Beteiligungsinstrumente für die Beteiligung der Öffentlichkeit im Standortauswahlverfahren (DigiBeSt). Hg. v. Düsseldorfer Institut für Internet und Demokratie und nexus Institut. Bundesamt für die Sicherheit der nuklearen Entsorgung (BASE). Berlin (BASE-RESFOR 026/24). Available online .

3rd workshop for practitioners on first results from surveys in case study municipalities

On 30 November we invited representatives of the municipalities with whom we cooperate in order to discuss the first results of the extensive surveys conducted by our research group. The focus was on the question of how the respective participation procedures are assessed by those participating and which aspects motivate or discourage such participation.

Despite the diversity of the five projects we examined (and the still small number of participants), the assessments of the people participating in such processes show a relatively high degree of agreement. Overall, the evaluations of the participation processes are rather positive with regard to the course of discussion and transparency. At the same time, however, there are also comparable challenges in all processes. For example, the representation of one’s own interests is rated as relatively good, but gaps in the representation of other opinions are perceived. Also, a balance of interests is not always achieved. Furthermore, the participants are rather sceptical about the actual impact of the participation results on the political process, even though they still deem such an impact possible.

There is more information available in German.